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In Lesbian YA Debut, Teen Girls Find Love in the Midst of an Asteroid Barreling Toward Earth

Author’s Note: This book and review contain talk of suicide and suicidal ideation.

The first time we meet Avery Byrne, the main character of Jen St. Jude’s YA debut If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come, she is staring at an icy river contemplating drowning herself in it. It’s the morning of her 19th birthday, and she is so depressed that this feels like the only solution. In the river, she sees the reflection of her Aunt Devin, her mother’s sister she never met. Devin died the same way on Avery’s birthday, so Avery thinks it’s her destiny to go the same way. She changes her mind, and on her walk back to her dorm room, she gets a call from her best friend Cass. There’s an asteroid hurtling towards Earth, and they likely only have nine days before impact. Cass asks Avery to meet her in Boston, and even though their relationship is strained, Avery agrees.

Unfortunately, getting to Boston isn’t going to be as easy as Avery hopes. As soon as the news was released, the whole country fell into disarray. Major cities like Boston and New York, where Cass is traveling from, are literally on fire, with violence basically shutting them down. But Avery’s roommate Aisha, who found one of Avery’s suicide notes, is trying to get to Boston so she can fly home to Nigeria. As a way to get her to keep the secret, Avery agrees to help Aisha get to Boston. They find themselves traveling with Avery’s former English professor, Dr. Talley, and his dog Scout. It isn’t an easy trip; they’re riding on top of vans in the bitter cold and trudging through the freezing snow. When they get to Boston, they find buildings burned to a crisp, people bloodied and bruised in the street, and cars looted and abandoned. Thankfully, they find Cass at South Station and make the decision to trek to the girls’ hometown of Kilkenny, New Hampshire.

St. Jude tells the story in two timelines: counting down from nine days to the impact of the asteroid, and a series of flashbacks that fill in all the blanks about Avery and her relationships with her family and Cass. She was an awkward kid who was close to her family. Her brother Peter is one of her best friends growing up, and even though he now has a wife and son, they’re still incredibly close. She loves her parents, even if they don’t always understand each other, and she seems to really love her hometown, even though she went away for college.

Avery’s family moved to Kilkenny from Kilkenny, Ireland when Avery was a baby and her older brother Peter a toddler. After her aunt’s death, her mother couldn’t stay in Ireland. We learn that Avery and Cass met in middle school and quickly became inseparable. Their friendship is that kind of intense relationship you have with your best friend when you’re a teen (at least I did). Cass is out as a lesbian from a young age, while Avery thinks of herself as nothing more than a true ally. Of course, that’s not true at all, and even though it takes Avery a while to figure it out, it’s clear that she and Cass are hopelessly in love with each other.

Teenage love, especially first love (even more so between best friends) is so powerful. St. Jude captures the complexities of how that plays out for them brilliantly. Cass is always very secure in herself in ways Avery clearly isn’t. Of course that causes friction for them, but it is never more clear than when it comes to their sexuality. Because Avery struggles so much to own her identity as a lesbian, she cannot fully articulate or understand the strong pull she has to Cass in the flashback timeline. We learn that she tried to kiss Cass when she visited her at college in New York, and it only led to them having a massive fight. There are parts of herself that are hard for Avery to share with Cass because of who she is as a person. I do wish Cass could be a little more understanding of those struggles, but I had to remind myself they’re teenagers. The power of their relationship is a strong undercurrent for the whole story.

The biggest theme in If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come is mental health. (There’s an author’s note on the subject matter and resources in the back.) Avery is very open with the audience about the depression she deals with, but it takes most of the book before she begins to reveal her situation to the other characters in the story. I understand why though — it’s hard to be honest about your mental health with the people closest to you. This feels even more true when you’re talking about a teenager. Even though teens have much more understanding around mental health now, that doesn’t always make it easier to be honest with your family or even your close friends. And for Avery, there’s so much more to that. Her religious upbringing and evolving relationship to Catholicism make it even harder for her to tell the truth.

Over the course of the book, she does begin to let people be more aware of her mental health and how it has affected her, especially in the months leading to the asteroid strike. Only Aisha knows of her plans to die for most of the story. There is a great conversation she has with Dr. Talley in his house that stuck with me. Avery, for the first time, really allows herself to be vulnerable about how much she was struggling during the semester. She tells Dr. Talley that she was very clearly deep in the throes of her depression and would have hoped that he would reach out and offer help. He tells her it wasn’t his job to do so because she is now an adult (which I wholeheartedly disagree with! 19 isn’t an adult, no matter what society believes) and that if she needed help, she needed to make her needs more clear. I do agree that sometimes, even though we think people should see our depression and ask without us having to say anything, we do have to ask someone to see us struggling.

For her entire life, she’s been trying to outrun the ghost of her dead aunt Devin. On the day of Avery’s birth, Devin died by suicide, which put a understandable cloud over her birth. Not only that, but Avery bears a striking resemblance to Devin with her red hair and blue eyes. It’s almost too much for her mother to bear, especially when she begins to recognize more similarities between the two. Even though Mrs. Byrne doesn’t explicitly state it in the flashbacks, it’s clear she sees the way depression affects Avery just like it affected her sister. As much as she tried to put that past behind them, it lives in every fiber of Avery’s being. Over the course of the book, Avery begins to reconcile with the connection between herself and her aunt Devin. As the days until the asteroid tick down, Avery’s mom is finally willing to discuss her sister with Avery, allowing the girl to finally find some peace with their connection.

Avery’s religion and her changing relationship to her Catholicism is another big part of who she is. I cannot speak fully to this struggle because I grew up without religion in my house. But St. Jude captures the tenuous relationship Avery has to her upbringing masterfully. For so much of her life, Avery is trying to be the good Catholic daughter her mother expects her to be. She throws herself into volunteering and becoming a leader at church. It’s not purely out of duty, as you get to know her, it’s easy to assume that some of that push is to mask both her depression and potential sexuality. There is a flashback scene of Avery and Cass at her church summer camp that shows one of the first fissures in Avery’s beliefs. During a campfire reflection circle, one of the campers indirectly outs Cass as a lesbian and makes truly hurtful and hateful comments about it. This is someone Cass had trusted over the time at camp, which hurt, but when Avery doesn’t stick up for her, it hurts so much more. At the time, Avery insists she’s an ally, but that night, the girls share their first kiss.

Despite the fact that the whole time the story is unfolding the characters are waiting for an asteroid to obliterate Earth, the overall tone of the book is hope. Avery realizes she can live on her own terms even if she only has a few days left to do it. Through that, she begins to accept the parts of herself that she deems hard to love or accept. She stands fully in being gay, and while some people may not be okay with it, the people who love her will always have her back. Her depression doesn’t have to rule her life, and she doesn’t have to pretend it doesn’t exist — it’s a huge part of who she is. By the end, she can accept her unknown fate knowing that she lived a life worth living. The title may be If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come but “tomorrow” can be a lot of different things.

If Tomorrow Doesn’t Come by Jen St. Jude is out now.

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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 121 articles for us.


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